City neighborhood creates a place to learn Rising grades show what involvement by residents can do

October 23, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A city academic experiment -- a tiny grade school established by neighborhood activists -- recently got a great report card: significant gains in reading and math test scores plus a 96.8 percent daily attendance report.

As bronze bells in the church clock tower at Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues struck 8 o'clock one recent morning, the first pupils hurried through Midtown Academy's wooden gate. The 100-pupil school, staffed by city public school teachers and run with Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill residents, seems to be making believers of one-time doubters.

At the end of second grade, pupils were doing math at a fifth-grade level. Third-graders were reading, on average, two years above grade level.

"There should be more schools like this in the city," said Andrew dela Torre, a Bolton Street resident and school volunteer who set up the academy's computer room. "It is unique. Where else could you get an education comparable with the North Charles Street private schools in a public school?"

He plans to enroll his infant daughter, Isabella, as soon as she's ready for kindergarten.

Each morning, as the children arrive, so does a contingent of parents who volunteer 10 hours a month for everything from being teacher's aides to supervising lunch hour. Others show up Saturdays to wash floors and blackboards. Parents also reconditioned the site, the former Corpus Christi parochial school, which most recently had been used by Maryland Institute, College of Art.

"The test scores may be great," said Gayle L. Utley, a school parent who keeps an eye on the building's condition. "But I hear water running."

Off she dashed to summon the maintenance worker to fix a leaking valve in the boys' bathroom.

The academy gets $2,700 a year per pupil from the city's Department of Education.

The academy was born when a group of Bolton Hill neighbors spotted a legal proposal notice in a newspaper headed "New Schools Initiative." The notice called for a request for proposals. The parents started talking and got to work.

They handed out fliers outside the Super Fresh at Eutaw Place and McMechen Street. They buttonholed parents of school-age children at the neighborhood Belle's hardware store.

"It was the kind of exercise in democracy you read about," said Wendy Samet, a fine-art painting conservator who works several days a week at the Maryland Historical Society. She, her husband and children live in a Park Avenue home near the granite-clad school building that costs about $14,000 a year to rent.

As the school expands -- one grade a year (it's now kindergarten through fourth grade) -- rent costs will escalate.

During numerous meetings around Bolton Hill dining-room tables, parents decided to keep class size small -- 20 students per year. Because of fixed costs (rent, utilities and maintenance), they appealed to other sources, such as the Abell Foundation, for help. They hope to enlarge the school and do a more thorough renovation.

Instead of a principal, two co-directors, Joan Brown and Flora Johnson, run the school.

"The reading and math scores and the attendance rates there are very impressive," said Abell Foundation chief Robert C. Embry Jr., whose group has given the school start-up financial support.

Samet said the school is racially diverse: 83 African-Americans; 13 whites; three Asians; one Indian.

"I think the school system initially thought that we were going to be an elitist white school," Samet said.

Doreen Rosenthal, a Bolton Hill resident who does fund raising for the academy, said: "It is a miracle this school has made it -- and it made it because the parents hung in there. They had the desire and the passion."

A typical school day begins as children enter by an old-fashioned gate off tiny Rutter Street, at Lafayette, then pass through the school's concrete play yard.

Before long, they are loudly singing the school song and getting down to their lessons in classrooms that overlook the back porches of the 1890s homes along Mount Royal Avenue.

"This is an urban school, and we make use of the city all the time," said Utley, who lives in Reservoir Hill. She found out about the school the same way many of her neighbors did -- a flier at the grocery store.

"I said, 'I'll be there,' and I latched onto the dream," Utley said.

Parents and teachers spend Thursday afternoon leading children to other city addresses.

When the 56 girls walk to swimming lessons and physical education classes at Druid Hill Avenue YMCA in Northwest Baltimore, the 44 boys form a line and head off to Walters Art Gallery and the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library. The next week, the boys will go to the Y, and the girls to the Walters and the Pratt.

When they visited the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue, the children rode the No. 13 bus. When they went to the circus, they rode light rail.

"The Walters has been really nice to us and lets us have 20- or 30-minute self-guided tours," said Monica Rastegar, the school's art teacher who, like many of the school's staff, lives in Bolton Hill. "We like to use the community's resources as informally as possible."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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